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Big Architecture: AIA New York Has Shaped the City, But Can it Reshape City Hall?

Big Architecture: AIA New York Has Shaped the City, But Can it Reshape City Hall?

New York Observer 11/29/11

By Matt Chaban

Last month, Mayor Bloomberg stood in a shiny white conference room inside Department of Buildings headquarters on lower Broadway, two blocks from City Hall. He was surrounded by some of his top deputies and a giant flatscreen monitor mounted on the wall. Welcome to the Hub, a new high-tech system that allows the city’s architects and engineers for the first time to interface with plan examiners at the 17 different departments with oversight of their projects simultaneously.

“We all heard horror stories about delays in the approval process that cost time and money,” Mayor Bloomberg told reporters.

Standing at the podium beside the buildings commissioner and landmarks chair, closer to the mayor than the reps for the Real Estate Board and developer the Related Companies, was a striking woman in a black tweed dress and gray cardigan.

Margaret O’Donoghue Castillo, along with her members at the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, where she is currently serving as president, have told the city more of these horror stories than anyone else, and it was through their advocacy, their lobbying, that encouraged the mayor and the Department of Buildings to create the Hub.

“When anyone submits a permit or has to change one during construction, the whole process is very cumbersome,” Ms. Castillo said during a recent interview at the chapter’s sleek Center for Architecture in the Village. “You have to touch many agencies–Parks Department, DOT, it’s not just the Buildings Department, there’s Planning, Landmarks, Mayor’s Office, so on and so forth. So you can reach a stalemate on an issue, where one says the tree has to be here and the other says the curb cut has to be there, and there’s no way we can resolve it, we just get bounced around.”

For years, the AIA was used to getting bounced around. Many architects, despite their progressive convictions, are allergic to politics, at least publicly. Dependent on developers and patrons of other persuasions, designers are often concerned that if they come off as firebrands, it could cost them work in the future. However, the institute has been quietly raising its profile, politically, professionally and culturally, all in the interest of furthering its interests within the corridors of power—which it helped build but rarely gets the credit for.

Taking a political role is especially important in New York. Not only is this a city singularly associated with its architecture, its skyscrapers and townhouses, but it is also a place where politics has more to do with how we build than in almost any other city in the country. Rather than design commissions and planning boards negotiating projects on their aesthetic and community merits, it is zoning and building codes that define the shape of our structures. There is a common joke that is meant only half in jest, that the real designers in New York are the land-use attorneys.

“It used to be we were more reactive, waiting for the forum to air our views, and by then it was usually too late,” Rick Bell, the executive director of the chapter, said. “Now we want to be there for the start of the discussion, or even initiating the discussion ourselves.”

Mr. Bell is largely responsible for the AIA’s recent transformation. He joined the trade group a decade ago chiefly because he saw its potential to take a more active role in the civic life of the city. “Architects shape so much about the city, and yet they have so little influence in how they shape it,” he said.

Mr. Bell came to the profession in 1970s, and his first endeavor was a nonprofit on the Upper West Side that essentially offered free architecture and planning advice to other nonprofits, like housing groups and block associations. He then spent about 15 years in private practice, mostly building educational projects, before having “a cathartic moment in my 40s,” when he decided to go into public service. He joined the Dinkins administration in the General Services Department and then led the creation of the Department of Design and Construction for Mayor Giuliani. When he left in 2000, he took a year’s sabbatical before joining the AIA. “Rick’s a very strong personality and a very courageous personality,” said Margery Perlmutter, a land-use attorney and trained architect who serves as the AIA’s legislative director. “He is willing to talk to anyone and he is willing to talk about anything.”

Civic life is not new to the AIA. The organization was founded shortly after the Panic of 1857, when the recession made it almost impossible to find work—not unlike today. Following the Civil War, the institute relocated to Washington, where most work was being done for reconstruction. Momentarily bereft, New York architects founded their own chapter of the now-national organization in 1867.

For many years, the focus was on professional development, lobbying for standard practices at a time when buildings were designed as often by developers and builders as by trained architects. The AIA did play a role in the adoption of the first zoning code in 1916, and there was a particularly active period in the 1960s, when the likes of Philip Johnson marched on Penn Station—architecture was going through a particularly radical moment, like everything else in the world. But with the great moderation of the ’80s and ’90s, the industry largely left the politics to its development masters.

“That was one of the reasons I took the job,” Mr. Bell said, “I thought there was a lot of potential for greater public engagement.”

The Center was one of Mr. Bell’s first great achievements at the AIA, and it underscores this public commitment. Opening in 2003 at 536 LaGuardia Place, it has become a place not only for architects to gather but also those they hope to influence. The Center hosts hundreds of exhibitions, talks, forums and meetings a year, bringing architects, stakeholders, elected and appointed officials and the public into a space obsessed with how design shapes the city and daily life. Ms. Perlmutter said that she was never interested in joining the AIA until she made a visit to the Center for Architecture. Dozens of chapters across the country have since followed suit opened their own versions, and the one here just expanded into a storefront next door to accommodate more exhibitions and activities.

The Center also helped raise awareness of the AIA and the expertise of its members, and the Bloomberg administration began reaching out, looking for input on programs ranging from PlaNYC to the Green Codes Task Force. The AIA was chiefly responsible for the new Active Design Guidelines implemented in 2010, which urge architects and developers to create “healthier” buildings–better lighting, better air quality, better stairs. It also sponsored the urbanSHED design competition on behalf of the DOB, which created new, cathedral-like sidewalk sheds that will promote better circulation and aesthetics.

Still, the organization oftentimes felt like it was on the outside looking in when it came to major political decisions affecting the construction trades, development and zoning. “These things give you a seat in the room, but it doesn’t get you a seat at the table,” Ms. Perlmutter said. “A seat at the table means your ideas are coming up early in the discussion and they’re respected and listened to and people go, ‘Oh, my god, we have all these experts here, let’s use them.’”

The first step was hiring Jay Bond, the former director of land-use at the City Council, who left after his boss, former Councilwoman Melinda Katz, lost her bid to become city comptroller. He is serving as the AIA’s first full-time policy director, and his knowledge of not only land-use minutiae but also the inner workings of city government, as well as his connections there, has helped the AIA make its case in the right way to the right people. The organization has also retained the services of the Marino Organization, a PR shop with deep ties to Big Real Estate and City Hall, and lobbying outfit Capalino+Company, which does work in politics, community and cultural circles.

Beyond the Hub, the AIA is now trying to tackle such broad issues as reforming the land-use review process and ending the statute of repose, which holds architects liable for the life of their buildings. Lawsuits are rare, but the insurance can be crippling, and New York and Vermont are the only places to require it. The AIA has also been encouraging architects to join their local community boards.

“This is not a nice way to think about it, especially if you’re me,” said Steven Spinola, the influential head of the Real Estate Board, “but I think some people, when they hear somebody in real estate is proposing something, they think they’re doing it because of money. And when they think of somebody in the architecture world or the planning world is doing something, they are doing it for the architecture and so forth. So I think there is significant creditability there that’s automatic.”

This creates its own challenges, however. Lacking the money of the real estate board and the size of some of the unions, the AIA has had to do most of its work through back channels. But heading into the next election, there is hope of creating an architecture platform of sorts. “There are so many good things about PlaNYC that we really want to keep it going, if not more invigorated,” Ms. Castillo said. “So we’re very interested, next year, in seeing where the candidates positions are, because we really think it’s critical to New York.”

Who knows, some day the mayor could be an architect. It is a rare thing in American politics–the only registered architect to hold national office in generations is Richard Swett, a Congressman from Vermont. (Don’t forget Jefferson.) Meanwhile, Ms. Perlmutter points to Istanbul, where the mayor was an architect widely credited with transforming the public realm.

The desire to affect the political process speaks a good deal to the historical moment in which the AIA currently finds itself, with a mayor who is actually quite enlightened to the issues the organization concerns itself with. The Bloomberg administration has transformed the way in which New Yorkers think about what designers like to call “the built environment,” the infrastructure and open space and architecture that the rest of us tend to think of simply as the city.

It is a rather chicken-and-egg debate, but the fact remains, without Michael Bloomberg, the AIA might not be so embolden, but having been awakened, architects want to hang on to their new-found riches. Not to mention the fact that a recession that has laid off more architects than workers in any sector, per capita, has created a greater desire to take risks.

“This has always been necessary,” Ms. Castillo said, “but what we did see was, if things were slow at the Building Department, this would be the time to get in there. We also felt that the mayor was pro-business and -technology and -efficiency, then we actually felt very motivated to do it now and not wait for another mayor to come in and who knows. So we really did feel the urgency to get this done fast.”